Skip to site navigation

 
Student information

Self Injury
..............................................................................................................................

Most of us act at some time in a way that is harmful to our body whether it be by drinking, smoking or other excesses. This leaflet is about the need to inflict injury on oneself in a more deliberate way such as cutting, burning, stabbing, scratching, hair pulling and bruising. Such action is rarely an attempt at suicide or an expression of madness; however, it is a sign there are problems that need addressing.


What makes someone want to hurt themselves?
..............................................................................................................................

The origins of self-harm often lie in a deep feeling of being powerless, trapped, or without choice. This may come from unhappy experiences in the past or a traumatic event such as being attacked. Current events can reinforce old feelings of distress, particularly when life is very stressful, or a person feels isolated, lacking support or understanding, or is under constant criticism.

Resorting to self injury is a way of both indicating that difficulties exist and is also an attempt to cope with the problems. Although harming oneself is not a constructive way of dealing with these difficulties, it may serve some of the following functions:

  • to tell people something is wrong
  • to legitimise feelings of pain
  • to gain a sense of control
  • to distract and bring a sense of relief
  • to manage unacceptable feelings such as anger
  • to punish oneself
  • to protest
  • to express shame and self hatred
  • to overcome numbness and restore a capacity to feel
  • to cleanse.

If you want help because you injure yourself
..............................................................................................................................

It is very important you care for your injuries with basic first aid: keep cuts clean and wrapped, burns need to be cooled and covered. If you are in any doubt, do seek some medical help.

  • the more you understand your need to injure yourself, the more likely you are to be able to make choices and look after yourself
  • talking to a friend or relative about your feelings and self-injury may help, but choose carefully who to tell. Be prepared for an emotional, even shocked reaction - and go on to say what you need, such as to be listened to not lectured; to be treated normally and not repeatedly asked if you are okay; to be distracted or offered companionship; or even to be given a hug and a cup of tea!
  • if you feel uncomfortable about talking to a relative or friend, then turn to a professional you feel you could trust, such as a counsellor at the Student Psychological Services.

Perhaps you want to stop hurting yourself but do not know how to begin or realise it will be really hard. It is possible to stop! Even making a little change in the right direction is important; go at your own pace, do as much or as little as you can.

Stopping harming yourself is likely to involve both loss and fear. Many people may not understand this, but in stopping you may feel that you risk losing any sense of control, or losing the means to express how you feel. And initially you may feel afraid that you will not be able to find any good and adequate alternatives.

Talking to a counsellor is a good way of having some support while you take the risk to stop.

If you know someone who injures themselves
..............................................................................................................................

It is natural to feel upset, helpless, even angry about what your friend or relative is doing. Rather than being frightened, regard it as a way s/he uses to cope with the difficulties in their life. Of course you want your friend to stop the self injury but you cannot force them to stop. However, you can help:

  • by trying to understand how self injury makes your friend's life easier and being accepting of her/his felt need to do it
  • by encouraging your friend to talk and listening sympathetically to the feelings involved
  • by maintaining a balance in the friendship through sharing your own joys and worries too, as a friendship ceases to be that if it is all one way!
  • by suggesting your friend calls if s/he feels upset or wants to hurt her/himself, but in doing so think about your own needs. You may be tired or have your own pressures. It is important to be able to say "no" under these circumstances

If the problem starts to get on top of you, find someone to talk to - preferably a person who is neutral and right outside the situation such as a counsellor or your GP.

Remember, you are not responsible for your friend's actions. Do not offer more than you can cope with - it is better to offer a little support which you can sustain, rather than offering a lot and then withdraw it.

You can also come to the Student Psychological Services and talk about how to help your friend as well as how to look after yourself. We are experienced in dealing with issues of self-harm.

This page has been adapted from information produced by the Counselling Service at Royal Holloway, University of London and they retain copyright.

..............................................................................................................................

right

featured articles
image of a student looking anxious